Alice in Space Wonderland: Alice Gorman joins Real Scientists

In the past few years, we’ve seen a sort of mini-renaissance of the space age as various space agencies launch satellites, planetary probes and even landed some, like the Mars Curiosity Rover in 2012. The family of space agencies has increased from NASA and the Russian Federal Space Agency: we now have the Indian Space Research Organisation successfully launching Mangalyaan, China National Space Organisation launching rockets and satellites, European Space Agency’s (ESA) long journey to land a probe on a comet, far far away. Private companies like Space X are making their bids for space travel and planetary exploration. And the International Space Station continues its orbit of the Earth, now going on its 17th year. We watch rocket launches on a regular basis, the ESA’s successful landing of the probe Philae on the surface of a comet was watched live by millions worldwide.

This burgeoning, new space race isn’t without its problems. Rockets take a lot of testing for what seem like basic manoeuvres in films. Launches are delayed o fail after months of preparation. There’s a frightening amount of space junk orbiting the earth, making some of the events of the film Gravity a very real possibility.

As space agencies broadcast their launches live, we all get to participate, observe the work that goes into making these amazing machines, and meet the people behind them. It’s inspiring to see humanity work together, raising its collective vision above the surface of the earth to other distant horizon. It’s probably one of the few things that can unite us as a species in awe, wonderment, joy. And with this new space age, this distinctly different arena of non-terrestrial exploration comes a host of issues: political, economic, ethical, moral – and, significantly, cultural. The history of human beings is littered with the rise and fall of civilisations, cultures, pieced together through artefacts and documents. This new space age presents a new set of cultural issues and artefacts, and it’s these artefacts and conundrums that archaeologist Dr Alice Gorman, our next curator on Real Scientists, studies, along side her work in heritage management.  Alice hails from the southern Australian city of Adelaide, based at Flinders University, and travels and talks about space archaeology – yes, it’s a real and wonderful thing – and its implications.  Her recent TEDx Sydney talk talks about the implications of space travel, culture and the politics of the day. While an American flag was once placed upon the moon, we would no longer have individual nations stake claims on non-terrestrial soil.  You can see her excellent talk here



Alice also writes regular pieces for The Conversation (here) and can b found on twitter as @drspacejunk.  Here’s more about Alice and what inspires her work, in her own words:


I’ve wanted to be a scientist ever since my father fell prey to a travelling salesman and acquired a set of science encyclopedias. I started with stars, then moved onto dinosaurs, and got stuck in human evolution and archaeology. Archaeology and astrophysics were my two earliest passions,

I studied physics, chemistry and maths in high school, and went on to complete an honours degree in archaeology and classics at Melbourne University. Following this I worked as a heritage consultant for a few years before starting a PhD at the University of New England. My research at this period was using high-powered light microscopes to look at the edges of stone tools that may have been used for body modification.

After a few more years in the consulting industry, I was struck by inspiration one day and decided to apply my heritage skills to looking at space junk. It was a happy combination as it united my childhood interests and felt like a natural fit.

Archaeology is an interesting field as it combines the best of both worlds – we use a lot of ‘hard’ science, but we’re also about understanding human behaviour in all its complexity. For me the most important thing about archaeology is that it shows us how the past was different – and hence how the future can be different too.

My current research on the archaeology of space exploration just feels like the most exciting way I could use my archaeological skills. I have so many favourite missions and spacecraft, and delving into their materiality brings to light so many interesting stories that you don’t see in the space history books. It’s really the thrill of the chase that keeps me here. Plus spaaaace!


Alice Gorman and Sputnik 1


By day I teach archaeology and cultural heritage management at Flinders University, and by night I spend my time researching and writing about space archaeology. I read the technical literature about space mission hardware, the planetary science literature, and keep up to date in the field of what we call “the archaeology of the contemporary past”. I’m also quite involved in the Australian space scene – I’m a member of the Executive Council of the Space Industry Association of Australia, and in 2017 we’re hosting the International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide. Having an active contribution to Australian space policy (and hopefully at a more international level too) is really important to me.

My main focus is space junk in Earth orbit. Pretty much everyone is aware that it’s become a serious environmental problem and something has to be done. But to do it well, in a rational and effective manner, there’s a lot of things that have to be taken into consideration. Heritage is one of them: orbiting above us are a large number of historic satellites which are meaningful for different nations and communities. There are other implications too. It’s not inconceivable that in the future access to space may be restricted to those who can demonstrate historic use of particular parts of space. If your space assets are destroyed in a space junk clean-up, it may be harder to make that case.

I’m a member of the Executive Council of the Space Industry Association of Australia, and it’s safe to say that I’m the only archaeologist ever to be elected! The Australian space community has been so supportive of me and my research, and it’s important to me to make a contribution to the industry.

I’m also on the Editorial Board of the Journal of Toaster Studies:

I used to study icon painting, not because I’m religious, but because they’re so beautiful and the discipline of painting them is so satisfying. My teacher was a well-known icon painter based in Sydney. I haven’t painted anything in a while but I still collect them. Recently I was lucky enough to be taken on a tour of Byzantine churches in the Amari valley in Crete, and am feeling inspired to take up the brush again.

My ideal day off would start with a sleep-in, followed by a trip to the wonderful Adelaide Central Markets. Then I’d spend a leisurely day cooking up a storm and have friends over for dinner. Perhaps there might be a champagne cocktail or two – my favourite at the moment is the French 75 (champagne, gin, lemon juice and sugar syrup).


Please welcome Dr Alice Gorman to Real Scientists!

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